The Arctic is often perceived as a harsh environment. But difficult living conditions have given rise to unique ecosystems in the far North. Some of the most iconic species in the world are endemic to the Arctic, such as the polar bear, walrus, narwhal, snowy owl and Arctic fox. But the Arctic also contains thousands of lesser-known species, often remarkably adapted to survive in extreme cold and highly variable climatic conditions.

In all, the Arctic is home to more than 21,000 known species of highly cold-adapted mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates, plants and fungi and microbe species. This extensive biodiversity provides essential services and values to people. They provide not only food, but the everyday context and basis for social identity, cultural survival and spiritual life.

Extremes of cold and seasonality and limited accessibility have kept human influence low, allowing ecological processes to function largely undisturbed. But climate change and an increasing demand for Arctic resources are driving a new era of human activity with subsequent consequences for Arctic biodiversity.

How does the Arctic Council safeguard Arctic biodiversity?

Ever since its establishment, environmental protection has been at the core of the work of the Arctic Council. In the Council’s founding document, the Ottawa Declaration, the eight Arctic States affirmed their commitment to protect the Arctic environment and healthy ecosystems, to maintain Arctic biodiversity, to conserve and enable sustainable use of natural resources. It does so through defined actions based on scientific recommendations.

Life on land, in the sea and in the air

The Arctic contains a diversity of marine, freshwater and terrestrial habitats, such as vast expanses of lowland tundra, wetlands, mountains, extensive ocean shelves, millennia-old ice shelves, pack ice, and huge seabird coastal cliffs. All of these ecosystems are affected by a changing Arctic – and each one in its unique way.

The Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) Working Group is assessing the state of Arctic biodiversity across the elements, and is developing monitoring plans to observe and understand how life is changing – in the tundra and in wetlands, in lakes and rivers, in the Arctic Ocean, and even in the air, as the Working Group follows Arctic migratory birds on their flyways across the world.

Managing Arctic marine ecosystems

The Arctic Council has developed a framework for implementing an ecosystem approach to management. In the context of the Arctic Council this means comprehensive and integrated management of human activities based on the best available scientific, traditional and local knowledge about the ecosystem.

The Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group is leading the Council’s work on managing Arctic marine ecosystems, and has produced guidelines, fact sheets and indicators to implement the theory into practice. CAFF is working to address these issues both in terrestrial, freshwater, marine and coastal ecosystems.

With an ecosystem approach to management, the Council aims at identifying and taking action on factors that are critical to the health of ecosystems – with the goal to achieve sustainable use of ecosystem goods and services and to maintain of ecosystem integrity.

Mainstreaming biodiversity

Biodiversity is impacted by multiple factors, including climate change, infrastructure development, and resource extraction. In order to address these factors and protect Arctic biodiversity, CAFF has pledged to encourage all those working on development activities in the Arctic to incorporate biodiversity considerations in their planning and operations, a process known as mainstreaming. While there are a wide variety of industries engaging in activities in the Arctic, such as oil and gas, and tourism, CAFF has agreed to initially focus on one sector: the mining industry.

WHAT IS BIODIVERSITY? The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity defines biodiversity as “the variability among living organisms from all sources including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine and other aquatic ecosystems, as well as the ecological complexes, of which they are part; this includes diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems”. Biodiversity includes the multitude of poorly known species, of which there are many in the Arctic, that collectively provide the foundation for food webs and ecosystems. The interactions between humans and their surroundings are also part of the diversity, vitality and sustainability of life on Earth.

Biodiversity projects

Underwater noise in the Arctic
PAME's State of Knowledge Review on Underwater Noise in the Arctic report provides a baseline understanding of underwater noise in Arctic regions, including ambient sound levels, underwater noise...
Project pageOverview
Resilience and management of Arctic wetlands
Wetlands constitute a large part of the Arctic and their role for sustainable development is critical, as they are directly related to climate change and adaptation, biodiversity, ecosystem services, ...
Project pageOverview
Actions for Arctic Biodiversity 2013-2021
Implementing the recommendations of the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment.
Project pageOverview
Marine Biodiversity Monitoring
Arctic marine environments are experiencing, or expected to experience, many human-induced and natural pressures.
Project pageOverview
Water sampling in the Arctic. Photo: Steve Hillebrand/CAFF
Freshwater Biodiversity Monitoring
Changes in water temperature, permafrost, ice cover extent and duration, hydrological processes and water balance can have unexpected and unpredictable effects on freshwater biodiversity and related e...
Project pageOverview
Red Knots. Photo: Morten Ekker
Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative (AMBI)
The Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative (AMBI) is a project designed to improve the status and secure the long-term sustainability of declining Arctic breeding migratory bird populations.
Project pageOverview
Photo: Steve Hillebrand/USFWS
Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Program (CBMP)
The CBMP is an international network of scientists, governments, Indigenous organizations and conservation groups working to harmonize and integrate efforts to monitor the Arctic's living resourc...
Project pageOverview
Arctic Biodiversity Data Service
The ABDS is an online tool to house, collect, display and search for Arctic biodiversity related data, maps and graphics for decision making.
Project pageOverview
Mainstreaming Biodiversity in Arctic Mining
This report identifies key challenges and possible solutions for incorporating biodiversity considerations into mining operations in the Arctic.
Project pageOverview

Biodiversity making headlines

Carey Islands (Photo: Nicholas Per Huffeldt)

“I think it is important for research to have meaningful impact “

Interview with Dr Nicholas Huffeldt, 2020-2021 CAFF-IASC Fellow with the Circumpolar Biodiversity Monitoring Programme
05 Jun 2020
Woman sitting at a lake in Northern Norway

Biodiversity and human health: What’s a holistic approach to good health?

Good health is not the mere absence of diseases. It is the result of a complex interplay between factors influencing our daily lives and the surrounding environment. Howe...
02 Jun 2020
Dunlin with plastic exposure on the tundra (photo credit: Maria Gavrilo)

“There is very little information about the impacts of plastics on shorebirds”

Interview with Dr Scott Flemming, 2020-2021 CAFF-IASC Fellow with the Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative
28 May 2020
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